Final Fantasy IX Review

Replaying Final Fantasy VII proved to be such an enjoyable and rewarding experience that revisiting Final Fantasy IX was inevitable.

This was another piece of my juvenalia that made a huge impression upon my imagination as I was growing up.

Final Fantasy IX returns to the series’ roots, with a more medieval flavour, in contrast to VII and VIII’s techno/industrial worlds. This is certainly a welcome choice, as any complaints that I have for this game certainly don’t lie in the aesthetics or setting. Actually, that is this game’s real strength; the sumptious backdrops, the environments teeming with life and a world map in which mist powered airships soar above really adds depth.

I remember wandering for hours through Lindblum, Alexandria and Treno, generally just enjoying the ambience of their excellently realised fantasy settings. Their is a vein of Pratchett-esque comedy that runs through the game – clanking knights, incompetent nobles and all manner of silliness. Charming though this may be, it jars whenever a serious plot point is made.

Perhaps the only real sense of pathos is when Vivi discovers his purpose and his own obsolescence a la Blade Runner. This is a shame, as the breadth of imagination and craftsmanship is rather undermined with bad story-telling and a rather irritating protagonist. I’m not sure if this because the game is pitched at a younger audience or whether it is simply hard to reconcile when compared to its prequels.

Final Fantasy IX is rather hollow. The archetypes that one expects in a Final Fantasy game are the sad echoes of earlier characters: Kuja is a diluted Sephiroth, entirely drained of menace and intrigue. In fact his New Romantic dress sense is so bold as to border on the ridiculous. Zidane is more interested in cringe-inducing advances upon any female he meets and his origin story does nothing to drum up depth or even sympathy – he is a sorry echo of the infinitely superior Cloud or Squall.

It is only Vivi, the living weapon (a kind of Replicant) that really inspires. This diminutive mage is both humble and potent upon the battle field. Steiner, the Falstaffian leader of a troupe of foolish knights, has an interesting arc and becomes the chivalric archetype through serving others rather than an autocratic regime. Freya, the love-sick warrior, also holds interest, reminding me somewhat of Brienne of Tarth.

Worst of all is the feeling that this game is on rails. The success (or not) of any choice you are called upon to make is typically down to luck or whether or not you have your walkthrough handy, as opposed to requiring any degree of skill; for example, do you ask Mog, Mogwan or Mogki to go fishing? The hell if I know! Add to this the slogs through mediocre dialogue and Active Time Events – nebulous elements of story that grind an already ponderous game to a halt.

The battles themselves are well-executed and far more challenging than this game’s predecessors – better to have a Phoenix Downs and Potions at the ready. Unfortunately, this game’s limit breaks (known as ‘Trance’) are bloody useless and so infrequent that you will seldom get the chance to use them at opportune moments. That said, this shouldn’t detract from what is otherwise an excellent battle system. Each character in combat is very distinct, making strategy a key component, as they will be forced to support one another to take down foes.

A final gripe is the music. Fantastic though it may be, each score – with a few notable exceptions – is comprised of a few catchy bars, which soon become repetitive. Spending too much time in one place can feel like a kind of purgatory, especially when combined with an overdrawn exchange of expository dialogue.

Despite these drawbacks, Final Fantasy IX is still a joy to play and it is only the strength of its predecessors that makes this criticism possible. On balance, it is a wonderful adventure, but not one that will stay with you forever.

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FINAL FANTASY VII: REVIEW

Nearly twenty-five years on, Final Fantasy VII still stacks up, firing the imagination and redefining the very notion of video-gaming. 

The PlayStation redefined the bounds of what was thought possible, and nowhere more so than with Final Fantasy VII. A sprawling epic that boasted over forty hours of gameplay, a huge world, and a storyline and score to rival Hollywood. Many games have made similar claims – few have exceeded expectations in quite the same way. Final Fantasy VII takes place in a fictional setting that merges European mythology and post-war industrial Japan. Steampunk, cyberpunk, neo-Tokyo, the American Military Industrial Complex—it’s all there. The culmination of decades of cultural zeitgeists come crashing together in an imagination-defying world. The concern is one that prevailed in the 90s and is definitely back on the agenda: the world is dying. Shinra Inc, a corporate, militaristic organisation has pretty much taken over the world and powers its ambitions through the use of Mako energy. Unfortunately for the planet, Mako is its lifeblood.

The concern is one that prevailed in the 90s and is definitely back on the agenda: the world is dying.

Enter Cloud Strife, an amnesiac and ex-member of Shinra’s elite SOLDIER. He joins a rag tag bunch of freedom fighters intent on blowing up the planet killing Mako reactors. The moral quandary begins here; in destroying the reactor it will inevitably many innocent people living in Midgar City. Shinra’s response is draconian, ultimately leading to the deaths of thousands. For many computer games, this would be quite enough to be getting on with, but Final Fantasy VII is only just getting started.

Shinra isn’t the real enemy—a far more existential threat emerges, drawing Cloud and his pals out of the confines of the hellishly polluted Midgar city and into the wider world beyond. Visit devastated towns, wracked by the greed of Shinra’s ambition, theme parks, warzones, communities and cultures that reach across the world. Your journey will see you battling with daemons and oligarchs, goblins and robots. To reach these desinations, you must capture and ride Chocobos (cute giant birds) charter boats, drive seaplanes, steal a submarine and ultimately take command of the airship ‘Highwind’.

The turn based battles are superbly rendered and maintain a sense of urgency as you quickly select spells, attacks and powerful summons—creatures or deities that come to your aid unleashing devastating powers upon your foes. Many of the boss battles represent a real challenge, requiring you to ascertain their weaknesses and react accordingly. ‘Limit Breaks’ -by far the most satisfying ability—enable embattled characters to use a kind of special move, like a salvo with Barrett’s gun-arm or ‘healing wind’ conjured up by Aeris.   

The decades have been kind to Final Fantasy VII. The graphics are blocky and dated but—and this might be nostalgia talking—they retain their charm handsomely. More problematic are the characters themselves; Barrett is a laughably one-dimensional, depicting a tired racial stereotype that was perhaps innocuous in the 90s and downright offensive in 2019; Tifa and Aeris offer Cloud unconditional love, even allowing the player to ’choose’ between them both. Tifa is no shrinking violet, and certainly kicks ass, but she still has to do it wearing tiny shorts and sporting the sort of bust that can only be realised through the digital medium. Even the story is not beyond scrutiny: complex and sprawling and wonderfully surprising though it is, the plot is rife with holes and inconsistencies. At times it feels as though parts have been made up as the narrative ticks along and a few plotlines are abandoned well before their due.

The game’s flaws are only evident as the vast majority of Final Fantasy VIIs canvas is flawless. The artwork is spell binding and the story has the ability to rouse both pathos and bathos in equal measure. Characters like Vincent Valentine fire the imagination and create a sense of wonder. Gamers have saved the world time and time again, but it is rare that the stakes ever seemed higher. The final battle is more than just a final challenge to overcome before you can set down the controller and move on with your life – it is a cathartic experience. You must unleash vengeance for your dead friend, avenge your past, save the planet and secure the future. Why don’t they make games like this anymore?

Mice and Mystics: Review

Players 1- 4

Cooperative

Published by Plaid Hat Games

Do you often find that the theme of many games is lost within their intricate mechanisms? Is the story largely an irrelevance, playing second fiddle to the cut and thrust of game mechanics? Is the glossy artwork nothing more than a thin veneer stretched over slick game design? For your narrative kicks, are you having to resort to the bewilderingly complex world of RPGs or – God forbid – the videogames market? Fear not, Mice and Mystics is the game you’ve been looking for!

Mice and Mystics is a rare beast, blending smooth game design into an immersive experience where the story is king. At first the premise (or premice?) might not seem too appealing, but very quickly you’ll find yourself beguiled by the characters and their adventures. Prince Collin, locked in a dungeon by an evil witch, must rescue his kingdom from darkness. To do this he must escape by turning himself irreversibly into a mouse with the aid of a wizard’s magic. Not to be outdone, the witch turns her own ‘minions’ into nasty Rat Guards to hunt Prince Collin and his companions down.

‘Other hazards you’ll need to contend with are mousetraps, one-eyed crows and greedy cockroaches intent on stealing your cheese…’

Each adventure takes place on a series of satisfyingly chunky tiles representing such fantasy classics as sewers, guard rooms, courtyards and kitchen worktops. Each tile is reversible, cleverly representing the interior or exterior of a previous environment. In the first ‘Chapter’ Collin and his buddies, having defeated their jailers, climb through a grate in the floor. No problem! Turn over the tile and… uh oh… you’re gasping for air and scrabbling to pull you and your party out of the rush of sewer water. Other hazards you’ll need to contend with are mousetraps, one-eyed crows and greedy cockroaches intent on stealing your cheese. Each challenge serves to keep the action fresh, but also forces players to work together to overcome the odds, all the while battling to keep the ‘minions’ at bay.

Sounds frantic doesn’t it? Add to this a ‘Minion Clock’ that turns inexorably, threatening a rush of minion reinforcements and another ominous page turn in the narrative track. If Prince Collin and his pals fail to achieve their objectives before this reaches ‘The End’ the game is lost. To succeed, a careful balance must be struck; reckless haste results in characters quickly becoming ‘captured,’ but by the same token, risk averse players will find that the narrative track will outpace them, throwing all manner of nasty minions in their path.

To succeed, each mouse must  be used carefully, playing to their strengths and supporting the whole crew. The archetypes are familiar, albeit in mousey form: Prince Collin is a handy warrior, dishing out plentiful attacks and able to use his command abilities to boost his friends; Nez is a tank, laying down damage with his trusty hammer,  a useful mouse to have around when big nasties need squishing; Tilda is a healer, but also uses her empathetic nature to become more powerful when allies are in a bad way; Filch is a… a scamp. Nimble and light fingered, he can be depended upon to scurry rapidly from A to B performing vital tasks. As the adventure continues, missions often force players to change their play style in order to achieve objectives, such as dashing forwards to save a potential ally from a mousetrap.

Few things are more satisfying than when Nez flattens the big nasty with his hammer!

This immersive experience is augmented by the impressive components and it is clear that the designers understood the need for players to enjoy the tactile feel of this game. Everything in the box is chunky and oddly satisfying; granted, the miniatures are not a pinch on the output of say, Games Workshop, but they’re lovely nonetheless – the mice are suitably heroic and the baddies are dastardly and icky in equal measure. They’re solid too, and will tolerate the administrations of younger or ham-fisted players without the need for worrying about breakages. Even the more spindly miniatures, such as the mighty millipede, will stand up to wear and tear, as well as making you shudder just to look at it and even more reluctant to touch the damn thing… Yes, few things are more satisfying than when Nez flattens the big nasty with his hammer!

Don’t be fooled by the cutesy appearance of this game – it’s tough and elegant. One wrong misstep or a foolish move and you and your fellow mice will be in hot water. Plaid Hat Games have captured the feel of a band of heroes up against the odds, whilst sticking to a beautifully realised theme and fun narrative. Even if you manage to finish this game, the experience is such that you will want to introduce others, perhaps taking on the role of another mouse in the party, trying out some of the more esoteric equipment, or embarking on one of the many side-quests littered throughout the campaign.

In the years since its release, Mice and Mystics has won a great many accolades for its achievements and they are certainly well deserved. In a market where too often theme and story is merely window dressing, Mice and Mystics proves that the successful integration of story and gameplay makes for one of the best experiences out there.

Blackstone Fortress: Review

pic4406366Players: 1-5

Cooperative 

Blackstone  – come for the archeotech, stay for the adventure! 

The resurgence of the tabletop games market has certainly not gone unnoticed by the giant that is GamesWorkshop; after relinquishing their IP with Fantasy Flight, they have waded in with blockbuster titles such as The Silver Tower, Necromunda and Warhammer Underworlds, games that combine immersive game mechanics with GamesWorkshop’s customary flair for jaw-dropping aesthetics.

Blackstone Fortress encapsulates this approach, but takes it a little further. The contents are impeccable; from the chunky card stock to the illustrated booklets, there is a sense of pride and passion that has gone into the design, and that is to say nothing of the miniatures. Here we have a collection of protagonists and antagonists that are a triumph of imagination and skill, but also scratch a special itch for fans of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

Delving deep into the eldritch abyssal chambers of the Blackstone Fortress, an ancient behemoth of unknown origin, are a plucky band of heroes and anti-heroes. Many of these characters have revealed themselves from the fringes of the lore to seek archeotech, each for their own peculiar purposes.

Roll Call!

  • a swashbuckling Rogue Trader;
  • a robot with Abominable Intelligence;
  • a space bishop and his follicly challenged flaming chainsword wielding companion;
  • a pair of light fingered halfling snipers;
  • a Navigator with a great hat;
  • a pair of Xenos – a Kroot Carnivore; and
  • an Aeldari Ranger, who believes the Blackstone might just be the key to saving her dying world.

Docking their craft to Precipice (a villainous hive of flotsam and space-jetsam) players strike out on perilous expeditions into the Blackstone Fortress, intent on treasure and unlocking the secrets within.

“Expect to be assailed by Chaos Beastmen, warp-wielding Rogue Psykers and (naturally) 10,000 year old super soldiers”

Waiting inside are a terrifying conglomeration of hostiles. Representing the first tier of enemies are Traitor Guardsmen, fell soldiers bedecked in animal fur and scavenged armour, and the freaky Negavolt Cultists. They are not to be sniffed at. The initiative track randomly determines which explorers or hostiles get to act. If it looks bad, players can perform a ‘gambit’ to move themselves to a more advantageous position. Players must also support one another with overwatch, use cover and make the most of their unique abilities to thwart the tide of evil that sneaks, charges, aims or onslaughts, depending on the will of the Blackstone Dice that acts as the game’s internal intelligence. Each of the explorers’ vessels can also offer remote support to give your explorer the edge, offering nifty things, like a targeting matrix (a cheeky re-roll), for when you really need them.

Having overcome these odds, players gratefully return to Precipice, presumably for a few restorative beverages, but primarily to heal, augment themselves with weaponry, bionics and all manner of bonkers equipment that one might expect from the Grim Darkness of the Far Future.

Players can also combine their intel to determine the location of a Stronghold, one of a number of particularly nasty zones within the Blackstone that might just hold the answers they are looking for. By this point, expect to be assailed by Chaos Beastmen, warp-wielding Rogue Psykers and (naturally) 10,000 year old super soldiers. At the head of all of them is Obsidius Mallex, the Black Legion commander. He would like to alleviate some of his frustration at being marooned inside this alien labyrinth. Yes he would. With his giant hammer.

“Players can oscillate between congratulating themselves for implementing surefire tactics… and finding themselves in a galactic mother-load of bother”

It will take more than tactics and resources for an intrepid band to make it through. The ‘inspiration’ mechanic enables your explorer to go into a kind of overdrive. Once activated, turn over your explorer’s card to find a whole new bunch of stats, buffing them considerably. The only question is, do you activate your inspiration now, or hold on to it until you really need it?

The element of uncertainty makes these kind of decisions commonplace, with the Blackstone throwing all kinds of curveballs your way. For example: In the event phase the Blackstone might determine that you won’t be getting any Destiny Dice (an important dice pool that can turn things in your favour), then suddenly that smouldering pile of enemies gets reinforcements! In this way, players can oscillate between congratulating themselves for implementing surefire tactics and finding themselves in a galactic mother-load of bother! One moment you’ll have a grip on the situation: laying traps, denying hexes with flaming promethean and keeping enemies at bay with a succession of critical sniper shots, the next you’ll be smarting from grievous wounds, leaping to your fellow explorers’ aid and bundling KO’d friends into the Maglift with frantic abandon. Alternatively, you might suddenly realise that your own objectives take precedence over the safety of one of your new found companions – he is a xeno/robot/mutant/lunatic after all…

Blackstone Fortress doesn’t have the same sense of story as Warhammer Quest: The Silver Tower – at no point will you find yourself taking on the role of a grand-eloquent narrator to drive the story onward, but there is no need. Blackstone Fortress is cinematic, gritty and bombastic enough to forego any need for players to resort to text. Who could forget when the Kroot Tracker leapt to Pious Vorne’s aid when the Traitor Sergeant charged burning through the cordon? Or when Amallyn Shadowguide risked all to allow her companions to escape a pack of hungry Ur-Ghuls?

All of these moments contribute to a great experience and one that, even after several late nights and many hours of happy gaming with friends, we have yet to complete. The secret envelope remains unopened and with it, presumably, the secrets of the Blackstone Fortress.